Seven Questions For ... Ray Padgett
"Research. That's almost the keyword more than writing. I remember how clarifying it was when I learned there could be a difference between a reporter and a critic."
Ray and two Very Good Boys
Every second and fourth Friday of the month, Brady Gerber’s “7 For Seven” interviews writers talking about writing. But since we have a bonus Friday in May, we get a bonus interview! This week’s guest is Ray Padgett, who founded the blog Cover Me in 2007 and has grown it into the largest blog devoted to cover songs on the web. (Full disclosure: I’m a former contributor!) He's written one book on the subject - Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time - and has his second book - a 33 1/3 on tribute albums and Leonard Cohen - out in September. And Ray wants you to check out … his upcoming 331/3, of course! Read this interview on your browser.
Tell us: What (all) do you do? Bonus points if you show us how you got to where you are today.
I work on a variety of projects - a couple music blogs and the occasional book. Overseeing Cover Me is my main writing gig, and I've recently started a live-Dylan email newsletter as kind of a beta test to see if there's a book there. Still not sure of the answer, but I've enjoyed exploring the newsletter format, and it's gotten way more readers than I expected for something pretty niche. (Then again, you can say the same about a cover songs blog!) I've also got my second book coming out in September - a 33 1/3 about tribute albums and Leonard Cohen - so I'll be gearing up to promote it soon.
I first wrote about music in my high school and college papers. I started Cover Me in college, just to kill downtime on a study-abroad term in Edinburgh. When I graduated in 2009, I moved to New York for a SPIN internship, in its last days as a print magazine. I'd hoped it might turn into a job, but my second week there they laid off a third of the staff. I realized they probably weren't going to be hiring when the summer was over.
After that, I tried freelancing and, frankly, hated it. I didn't know how to pitch, I didn't know who to pitch, and on the rare occasions I figured those two things out, I wouldn't hear back. What money I earned mostly came from writing boring tech how-to articles for a content farm, being too clueless to even realize it was a content farm.
I remember it dawning on me one day as I sat in the Astoria Starbucks, why am I desperately trying to write for people who have no interest in me when I already have my own platform? I think I'd finally installed Google Analytics on Cover Me and realized, somewhat to my surprise, that this goofy little side project had a pretty big readership. I decided to quit pitching and focus on that. A decade later, that's led directly to everything else I've done, and Cover Me's doing better than ever. Don't let anyone tell you blogs are dead!
Walk us through a typical day.
I usually begin by looking at what needs to be done for the Cover Me staff - pieces that need to be edited, assignments that need to go out, emails that need to be answered, etc. We've got about a dozen people at any one time, so a good portion of my work now is more of a manager/editor role. My own writing, whether it's for Cover Me, a book, the Dylan newsletter, tends to come later in the day when all the rest has been dealt with.
I've always tried to keep pretty regular "work" hours, even though for most of my career I haven't actually had an office job. Pre-pandemic, I went to a co-working space too. That kind of ritual, even if it's enforced by no one, helps me get done what I need to and feel like I can be "off" in the evenings. Unless I have a looming book deadline or something, I'm rarely working odd hours or late nights.
Also, it's worth noting that a collection of blogs and moderately-selling books do not add up to a full-time income! So I do PR too, which takes up about half a typical day. Used to be mostly bands, now is mostly podcasts and nonprofits. I'm lucky that I've managed to find a way to do what I love while paying the bills in a pretty enjoyable way.
Describe more about how you work; how do you do what you do?
Research. That's almost the keyword more than writing. I remember how clarifying it was when I learned there could be a difference between a reporter and a critic. That's an outdated line to draw these days, but I think of myself very much in the former category. I have little interest in reviews or think pieces. What I enjoy most is original research, whether it's conducting interviews, library visits, or even just deep dives on YouTube. Probably 75% of my time is spent on that before I even write a word. That holds true for books and blog posts alike.
I know this is ostensibly about writing, but I consider my actual writing to be pretty utilitarian - and I don't think of that as a bad thing. Not everybody needs to aspire to be Lester Bangs. I want to digest all I've learned into a story that's clear, engrossing, and maybe a little funny. If someone's reading something I wrote, I hope they never notice "the writing." I'd far prefer they were too drawn up in what I was writing about. That to me is success.
What’s your trick for when you’re feeling stuck?
More research! That's probably both redundant and not super useful advice for many (sorry to any poets reading this), but I'm pretty wary about giving out advice anyway. I only know what works for me. And when I get stuck, it's usually because I've run up on a question I don't know the answer to. So I stop what I'm doing and find out.
List some of your notable influences, past and present: writers, books, works of art, different strings of beans, anything and anyone that has inspired you.
All my books are still packed away after a recent move, so I'll shout out two extremely different magazines I discovered in the past few years, both with great writing in very different ways: The Oxford American and Roctober.
I suspect many people reading this already know of the Oxford American, but I live in Vermont, pretty far from a southern magazine's core audience, and hadn't discovered it until a road trip when I impulse-bought a copy in a Clarksdale, Mississippi folk art shop (an extremely Oxford American location). It's technically a literary magazine, but the term "literary magazine" seems too narrow. It includes short stories and poems, true, but also long works of reporting and a whole lot about music, all located in the American South but of interest far beyond it. For a while, I've had the vague idea of trying to start something like that for Northern New England. Maybe one day.
The defunct fanzine Rocktober falls on the more amateur end of the spectrum. (They sometimes spelled it Roctober, and if you're not even consistent on how you spell your own title, you know it's pretty fly-by-night.) I first discovered Roc(k)tober via a collection of their interviews - Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll: Conversations with Unjustly Obscure Rock 'n' Soul Eccentrics, one of the best music books I've ever read - and began scrounging around for back issues. It was published sporadically in the '90s and 2000s out of Chicago - only a few blocks from where I was then growing up, though I didn't know it at the time. They interview everyone from semi-forgotten oldies acts - their pieces on Billy Lee Riley and Sam the Sham go on for thousands of words - to odd eccentrics who never made it in the first place. In one piece, they tell the story of a '70s glam band whose every member claimed with a straight face to be an alien and who ended up in jail. In another, they chronicle every band where the performers wore monkey masks (there are way more than you'd expect). In its amateurish fans-first way, the writing is great.
Ray is great, right? I’m glad we’re able to do this. This interview is possible because of subscribers - thank you for following! Other ways you can support this newsletter: Tip for coffee (so I have fuel to edit everything) and share this dang thing. But the most helpful thing you can do is:
Advice time: What’s a piece of wisdom that you wish you first heard when you were starting out?
That it's okay to do your own thing. Trying to play the game of pitching big outlets just left me frustrated. I'm much happier in my own strange little niche. Whenever I go on SiriusXM, in a typical morning-radio flourish they call me "The King of Covers." I always laugh because that's a crown no one else is competing for. And that's just fine with me.
“Art”: What the heck is it?
I just went on about how I think of my writing as utilitarian and now you're trying to trick me into opining on the nature of art? Nice try! Art used to be in a group with Paul, how about that?
BONUS: Cats or dogs?
We have two rescue dogs and they are terribly behaved, so I'm going to say cats! (Just kidding - dogs of course.)
Photo credit: Ray Padgett